Of Sac and Steinbeck
Sacramento, CA 95816
Matt Costa’s looming career as a pro skateboarder ended with a broken leg at the age of 19, and so the Orange County native eventually shifted his focus to music. He recorded his debut album Songs We Sing in 2006 with the help of No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont, and rereleased it on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records shortly after. Costa wrote much of his breakout second album, Unfamiliar Faces, in Sacramento while visiting a girlfriend. Now, he returns to town to play at Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub (2708 J Street) on Sunday, March 24, at 8:30 p.m. (tickets cost $18). SN&R chatted on the phone with Costa about his experience in Sacramento, recording his latest album in Scotland with producer Tony Doogan (Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai, Snow Patrol) and John Steinbeck.
How’d you get picked up by Brushfire Records?
Through Emmett Malloy. He did surf films, and he wanted to use one of my songs in one of the films. So he did. From there, [Johnson] heard it, and they invited me out to do a tour. … It blew my mind how many people were there. And so, we were on the road then, and halfway through the tour, he asked if we wanted to release the record again through his label.
How did Sacramento treat you?
I liked living in Sacramento. Every time I bring up Sacramento to my wife now, though, she gets bummed out because I went up there for a girl. … So, to her, Sacramento means my ex-girlfriend. It doesn’t mean that I actually just genuinely liked it there. But I did. I lived over off of the Cannery [Business Park] area there. I’d walk down to the river every day. And I’d ride my bike down to the [Sacramento and American river] confluence. … I liked picking wild blackberries at the river’s edge. [A song called] “Never Looking Back” … was about when that train bridge burned down. … I was in McKinley Park the day of, and I saw this big black plume of smoke rising in the sky, and I ran back because I thought my house was on fire.
You recorded with your latest, a self-titled album, with Tony Doogan. What was that like?
[He] introduced me to the Belle & Sebastian folks, and having a number of the guys in that band back up the record was really fantastic. They’re great guys, and we have a lot of similar tastes in music, and I’d been a fan of theirs for a long time as well.
Do you have plans to record with Tom Dumont again? Are you still close?
I talk to him really rarely now, maybe like once or twice a year. I actually owe him … this book that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a while. … He [gave] me Tortilla Flat, this John Steinbeck book. I [subsequently] went through all of [Steinbeck’s] books. I just read [Steinbeck: A Life in Letters] that Steinbeck wrote to everyone: [his] publisher, wife, friends, enemies. I’m looking at it [now] on the bookshelf. I’m going to drop it off on his doorstep, along with returning his copy of Tortilla Flat, which I’ve held on to for 10 years.
Do you have a musical-career highlight?
Probably about two years ago or so, I got a call from Donovan. And I sang “Sunshine Superman” with him onstage. We opened up the show and sang it together. That was a big moment. Not only being on the stage with him, but just being around him. That’s one of those things—it’s just cosmic.